Reading the poetry of John Donne can be an exhilarating and moving experience, but it can also be a baffling one. Not only is Donne’s argumentative wit frequently puzzling in itself, but it can also leave the reader uncertain as to just how much complexity should be followed up or teased out. Many of the other essays in this volume raise the same issue, whether explicitly or implicitly, as they discuss the puns, the playful echoes and the erotic double entendres in Donne’s verse. How far can we go as readers of Donne? What are the limits of the interpretative possibilities of his work, and how might we discern them?
One way to explore these questions is to concentrate for a while on an individual poem, since this is the primary context in which meaning is created. Of course it is vital to bring to such study an informed awareness of the authorial, textual, cultural and historical settings of the work, but it is good critical practice, as Richard Strier has put it, to read closely “with as much knowledge and as few preconceptions as possible”, paying attention to the “tiny details” of a poem in which “an extraordinary number of meaningbearing elements are at work”. Indeed, it is Strier’s contention that close and sequential reading is “the only way to enter into the emotional and intellectual eddies of a text” (Strier, 1995, 125-6). In this spirit, I have chosen to devote this essay to a painstaking reading of “The Relic” from Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, this being one of the most brilliant and perplexing of his love poems. It is a work which brings together the key concerns of the preceding three sections of this essay collection: mortality, corporality and faith. Over the years this lyric has aroused interest among Donne’s readers on matters of biography, philosophy, religious doctrine and the “metaphysical conceit”. Above all, it is an exemplary poem in that it is motivated by virtually all the driving forces of Donne’s poetic art: playful argument, fascination with religion, the love of women, satirical intellect, an interest in contemporary politics and learning, the appeal of the material world and the search for spiritual profundity.
1. “Hallow’d Relics”
Even before we read a poem, we take in its title. What is immediately striking is that this lyric belongs in a collection of secular poems but has a title associated with religion, and particularly with Roman Catholicism (the tradition in which Donne himself grew up). A “relic” means, literally, that which remains after a person has departed (OED Id) to fonction as a memento or a source of comfort for those left behind. Milton’s epitaph “On Shakespeare”, for example, speaks of the playwright’s “honoured bones” and “hallow’d relics” which remain after his death, and asserts that these are best preserved in the effects of his art rather than in a stone sepulchre (Milton, 1997, 10). Religious relics, from the bones of saints to splinters of the true cross, can become items of spiritual significance to be venerated (OED la) and may be expected to lead to miracles. The title thus immediately reminds us of a fundamental human need, whether personal or spiritual, for some keep-sake which provides memories, and hopes, in the face of a world of change and mortality. This need is recognised, though not respected, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar 2.2.87-9 when the dream of Caesar’s bloody statue is interpreted as a sign that “from you great Rome shall suck/Reviving blood, and that great men shall press/For tinctures, stains, relics and cognizance” (Shakespeare, 1974, 1116). To think of oneself in the present as a source of relics in the future might thus also imply (though not ensure) security, and supply a satisfying source of pride.
Relics were a common feature of religious life in pre-Reformation England, to the extent that there was a Sunday in the church year known as Relic Sunday (the third after Midsummer) when the relics in the possession of each particular church were venerated. They were, however, also the object of mockery well before the Reformation; the reliquary mentioned in the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, is said to contain only “pigges bones” (Chaucer, 1966, 25, l. 700). After the Reformation, relics came to be seen, along with rosary beads and other features of traditional devotional practice, as among what Samuel Butler listed as the exclusively Catholic “tools of working out salvation” (Butler, 1967, 231, 3.1:1497). In Milton’s Paradise Lost, relics are placed in the “Paradise of Fools” and made “The sport of winds” together with rings and beads (Milton, 1968, 3:496, 3:493). The more tolerant Sir Thomas Browne, writing on relics in Religio Medici 1:28, simply questions their “efficacy” and tenders “little devotion” to them himself, though he recognises their place in religious history. His scepticism is due to the fact that he sees relics as “antiquities”, for which he has “slender and doubtfoll respect” since, as he puts it, God’s “duration is eternity, and farre more venerable than antiquitie” (Browne, 1977, 96).
The poem’s title, therefore, awakens complex associations. Relics are directly linked with religious experience, particularly Catholicism, and evoke an aura of spirituality; but the faith with which they are linked is prone to sceptical mockery. They are part of the past, of what Browne calls “antiquitie”, yet the devotion associated with them implies the anticipation of an eternal future. They suggest a spiritual potential even while witnessing to a common desire for the empirical, that prevailing material dimension discussed by Michael Schoenfeldt elsewhere in this volume. Donne himself uses the term “relic” mockingly elsewhere in his poetry, in Satire 2:84, when he refers to a “thrifty wench” who saves odd scraps “relic-like”. Any implication of devotion, however, is undermined by the fact that the items she saves include “kitchen stuff” and “the droppings, and the snuff,/Of wasting candles” (160). As is typical of Donne’s attitude towards much of his ecclesiastical inheritance, he is perhaps drawn more to the metaphor than to the actuality of relics. But how playful will he be with the idea in this lyric?
2. “At this grave”
When my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain
(For graves have learned that woman-head
To be to more than one a bed)
And he that digs it, spies 5
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day , 10
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay? (ll. 75-6)
Donne’s lyric begins in a startling setting–the imagined scene of the speaker’s grave, after his death – a situation whose logical possibility is doubted by Donne himself, in “The Paradox”: “who can say/He was killed yesterday?” (73). The answer is that the poet can, when wit holds sway over the normal dimensions of time and space; the lyric speaker can indeed envisage what it will be like “When my grave is broke up again”. As in the opening lines of several other lyrics from the Songs and Sonnets, the reader is immediately confronted with a scene of death: compare “When I am dead” (“The Damp”, 51), “When by thy scorn, O murderess, I am dead” (“The Apparition”, 42), and “Whoever comes to shroud me” (“The Funeral”, 59). The apparently dead subject speaks of the future consistently in the present tense, and is imaginatively in control, despite the ostensibly passive condition of death. We are reminded of Donne’s surprising knack of keeping his personae centre-stage even when unconscious, absent or, as in “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day”, the “quintessence” of “nothingness” (72).
The scene of this first stanza is a graveyard which is so overcrowded that the gravedigger must add another body to an already occupied grave. The full graveyard was a familiar scenario in the early modern period, as we gather from its use by Shakespeare, too, in Hamlet 5.1. Donne’s speaker is also a kind of Yorick, whose bones are uncovered to make room for the burial of a new, female body. The language of the lyric is more dignified than that used in Shakespeare’s comic scene, however, as the poetic speaker casts himself as a kind of host, welcoming and preparing to “entertain” an additional “guest” in the grave. The original spelling of “guest” as “ghest” (Donne, 1985, 112) alerts us to the wordplay here, since the “guest”, being dead, is also a ghost. This new ghostly companion is, the poem indicates, not the first woman to share the speaker’s grave, making us realise in retrospect that the opening line might have referred to it as “our” rather than “my” grave. The speaker is already in the grave with his mistress, with whom he later claims to make a “loving couple” (ll.7-8), before the arrival of the new guest.
Less than four lines into the poem, in a conspiratorial aside, the persona is already enjoying a jibe against women, explaining the presence of the “second guest” by suggesting that it is a quality of women to be “more than one” to a bed. There is a teasing wit in the word “woman-head” with its pun on “maidenhead”, making us conscious of woman’s sexuality even in death. The grave becomes a bed scene, for, as Donne points out in Divine Meditation 10, “rest and sleep” are “pictures” of death (313). Unusually, however, the dead male speaker here is far from asleep or at rest; on the contrary, he appears very much alive as the “host” of two women at once. Indeed, if there are two women in the bed with one man, then the alert reader will realise that the implied promiscuity is a weakness of manhood, not of “woman-hood”. The beguiling quality of Donne’s wit is that it knowingly twists conventional logic and then waits for the reader to catch up with the joke.
After this dramatic and subsequently whimsical opening, the tone of the poem changes to a bold intimacy with the discovery of “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone” (l. 6). This famous line is immediately memorable on account of its powerful and unifying use of sound patterns, particularly the double alliteration of “br” and “b”, drawing attention to the satisfyingly balanced “device” (l. 9) by which the lovers declare their loyalty even beyond death. This, then, is the first “relic” referred to in the poem’s title, a material reminder of something admirable, even holy. The same emblem of love is used by Donne in “The Funeral”, where the dead speaker asks those who “shroud” him to protect “That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm;/The mystery, the sign you must not touch” (59). The use of this “sign” of a bracelet of hair in both poems might offer a clue to the compositional process of the Songs and Sonnets, perhaps suggesting that “The Funeral” and “The Relic” were composed at about the same time. More specifically, the idea of the bracelet of hair possibly derives from a 1582 account of the digging up of what were presumed to be the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in a grave at Glastonbury, where a lock of yellow hair was found (Mills, 1968, 368). Donne’s wit is prodigious, deftly combining the physical and metaphysical in this emblem, but the echoes of contemporary interests and historical events in this “device” remind us that his conceits are not, as has sometimes been assumed, timeless.
Like all relics, the “bracelet of bright hair” is an emblem of mortality even as it celebrates a love which transcends death. In the context of the grave, the woman’s hair shines out as “bright”, an adjective which conveys far more than the mere “fair” which editors tend to offer as a gloss (Smith, 1971, 397). Brightness suggests not only a light colour but also vitality and beauty, an almost transcendental quality in contrast to the “bone” around which the hair is entwined. As in Romeo and Juliet 2.2.26, when Romeo calls his beloved a “bright angel” (Shakespeare, 1974, 1068), the word conveys angelic associations. The fact that the “bright hair” forms a circle is a further heavenly aspect of this “device”, the perfect circle being an emblem of God’s eternity often used by Donne in his sermons; “Fix upon God any where, and you shall finde him a Circle; He is with you now... He was with you before... and He will be with you hereafter” (Donne, 1962, 7:52). The “bracelet” is also undoubtedly an erotic emblem-a female circle enclosing a male body part. The fact that the “bracelet” is wrapped round a sturdy bone, and not a handful of dust, is a sign of continuing vigour, and perhaps the first of the “miracles” (l. 20) associated with the relic. In “The Funeral”, the “wreath” of hair is designed to “keep these limbs, her provinces, from dissolution” into dust (59). “The Relic” hints that the bone of at least one of “these limbs” has been preserved; in the words of Ezekiel 37:3, “Do these bones live?” Certainly, the speaker in “The Relic” is not yet that “small quantity of Christian dust”, to use Isaac Walton’s striking phrase (Walton, 1670, 81), that Donne himself ultimately became. The poem has at its centre a lively consciousness-the speaker, whose body is these bones, seems alive and full of wit, ensuring that there is no mood of memento mori here, but rather, a tone of defiant celebration.
A new uncertainty is introduced into the lyric, however, by the repeated use of “think” and “thought” (ll. 8, 9) in place of a more deliberate verb such as “know”. Is the gravedigger mistaken in thinking that he has discovered a “loving couple” in the grave? As the ending of “The Good Morrow” ingeniously implies, truly equal partners whose “loves be one” (60) were not supposed to die; were these buried lovers, therefore, not true lovers, since they are dead? The nature of their love, which becomes the subject of the third stanza, is already called into question here. And is their hope of being reunited in soul as well as body, by means of the “device” of the bracelet, also more of a thought than a certainty? Perhaps it is a forlorn hope to imagine that, in the midst of the “last busy day”, the Day of Judgment (vividly depicted with all its hectic activity in Divine Meditation 7), their souls, as well as their bodies, might actually meet. The stanza ends on an unanswered question, projected into the future. However, the phrase “make a little stay” is carefully positioned at the end of the last line of the stanza, the moment in a poem when there is indeed quite a significant “little stay”, a pause in the poetic rhythm. This is an aesthetic, if not a rational, assertion of confidence in the lovers’ hope.
3. A time of “mis-devotion”?
If this fall in a time, or land,
Where mis-devotion doth command,
Then, he that digs us up, will bring
Us, to the Bishop, and the King , 15
To make us relics ; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby ;
All women shall adore us. and some men ;
And since at such a time, miracles are sought , 20
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought. (76)
From the intimacy of the grave explored in the first stanza, the second transfers us to a wider historical and geographical setting (“time, or land”) and immediately takes on a more satirical tone with reference to the religious and political context of early modern England. The speaker imagines that the lovers’grave is opened up in a period of what he calls “mis-devotion”, a term literally meaning devotion to the wrong things but, by implication, referring to Catholicism. In the Second Anniversary l. 511 (301) Donne uses the same word with reference to the Roman Catholic practice of praying to the saints, and in the 1669 text of “The Relic” it has become “mass-devotion”, confirming the specifically anti-Catholic impact of this expression (398). In a Catholic land where such “mis-devotion” might be practised, it was indeed, as in l. 15, the Bishop to whom the bones would be brought as potential “relics” for verification. A second layer of meaning in the title is becoming apparent: it is not just that the lovers’ “bracelet of bright hair” is a metaphorical relic signifying their love, but, further, that their bones might be taken for actual religious relics, the remains of saints. This is an idea which fascinates Donne and forms the central focus of this second stanza, even though it appears to be condemned as “mis-devotion”.
Having apparently established a Roman Catholic context for the opening up of the grave, the speaker intriguingly adds (l. 15) that the bones might be brought to “the King” as well as the Bishop, an unnecessary step in a Catholic country but a most apt procedure in a land such as early modern England, in which the monarch could authorise religious practice and even head the Church itself. Donne’s satirical instincts were never simple; it is too easy to read this stanza as critical only of Catholic practice. The poem was written by a former Catholic in an era when the King could also “command” (l. 13) in matters of religion; was not this, too, a sort of “mis-devotion”? Donne’s wit here playfully implicates both authorities, Catholic and Protestant, in one go, thereby also introducing a second kind of double timescheme in the poem. In the first stanza, the future is depicted and brought into the present; here, the pre-and post-Reformation eras are both satirised together, making the poem’s “time, or land” a double vision of past and present. Typically, the twofold satiric strike – at “the Bishop, and the King” – is set up in a line whose syntax actually manages to upstage both authorities. The line begins, boldly and unusually, with “Us”, the “loving couple” who are more important to the poem than any powers of either Church or state.
As we reach line 17 of the poem, “Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen”, we may be struck by the fact that only here, at last, does the speaker address the woman upon whom this love lyric is ostensibly focussed. The shifts of focus, in grammatical tenus, are quite unusual: the subject moves from first person singular (“my”, l. 1) via “us” (l. 7) to third person plural (“their souls”, l. 10) and back to “us” (ll. 14, 15, 16), but only now, for the first time, addresses the woman as “Thou”. Even within this line, the addressee is immediately configured as someone else, the Mary Magdalen for whom she is mis-taken in the land of “mis-devotion”. Why does Donne so quickly introduce the image of this particular saint? The primary association is probably the “bracelet of bright hair” given by the female lover to the speaker, since Mary Magdalen is traditionally (though perhaps wrongly) linked with the woman in the gospel who is said to have anointed Christ’s feet and dried them with her hair (John 12:3). In the iconographical tradition, she is depicted with long hair and may therefore be logically associated with the “device” of the lovers. She was also a saint who had formerly been a sinner – a prostitute who became a devoted follower of Christ – thus neatly, from the poet’s point of view, evoking sexuality even while embodying purity. The paradoxical sensuality and sexlessness of the lovers, an issue explored in the third stanza, is anticipated here in the introduction of Mary Magdalen as the saint for whom the female lover would be taken. There is further wit in Donne’s choice of Mary Magdalen for a scene set in a graveyard and prefiguring the resurrection of the dead, since Mary Magdalen was the first of Christ’s followers to encounter him on the original Easter morning, in the garden beside the tomb from which he had risen (John 20:11-18). The passing reference to this saint, linked variously with “bright hair”, sexual pleasure, pure devotion, and loyalty even after the death of her beloved, is thus perfectly chosen and fully exploited in the poem. It has been used by some critics to link the poem with Donne’s close friend, Magdalen Herbert, the mother of the poet George Herbert (Donne, 1983, 330-3), though the specific biographical connection is harder to prove than the biblical echoes and their witty exploitation within the poem itself.
Once the female lover has been taken to be Mary Magdalen, what is the “something else” with whom the speaker’s body is identified? If Mary Magdalen is remembered as a prostitute, then the speaker becomes one of her unnamed lovers or, more ironically, one of her customers seeking sexual satisfaction. But if Mary Magdalen is honoured, more appropriately in this context, as a saint, indeed as one of the closest followers of her Lord, then the speaker is, by implication, Christ himself. The evasive formulation of “something else” offers further evidence of the elusive identity of Donne’s speakers discussed in Tom Healy’s essay in this collection. In the case of “The Relic”, the teasing and apparently modest “something eise” keeps the speaker safe from any overt blasphemy by holding identification at bay. However, the phrase still lays him open to accusations of self-focus and pride, since the reader’s curiosity is here more tantalisingly aroused by the identity of the mysterious, and possibly holy, male speaker than by the woman assumed to be Mary Magdalen.
If the bones and bracelet of the speaker and his beloved are taken as relics and the two of them become saints – practices which, in themselves, are implicitly condemned – there are two other, more specific kinds of “misdevotion” which could possibly ensue, both of which mock any “time, or land” which would take them seriously. First, if the speaker is indeed taken for Christ, then this would lead to a totally misinformed devotion, since Christ’s bodily resurrection, one of the central doctrines of Christianity, would be denied by the discovery of his bones in a grave! Second, the devotees would be making a less drastic but still foolish mistake if they were to adore the remains of a prostitute and her paying customer. Whichever of these situations is envisaged, the stanza goes ahead with the imagined scene (which, we must remember, hinges entirely on the conditional “If” with which the stanza opens). The butt of Donne’s satirical attack here seems to be those who indulge in idolatry, the inappropriate offering of “divine honours” to a material object (OED 1). This tendency in devotion is condemned in the Bible as “abominable” (1 Peter 4:3) and listed in Donne’s own Satire 3:76 among the “bad” aspects of religion which would be better replaced by wise “doubt” (163). However, Donne’s critical wit is not reserved simply for those who are excessively gullible or superstitious in their religious practice, but is once again turned on women, who he suggests are more universally prone to “mis-devotion” than men are. Women’s supposed weakness and their vulnerability to extreme or misguided devotion are highlighted by the contrast between “all women” and “some men”. But there is something else going on here, too, in a wit which straddles slander and pride. Would we be wrong in observing that the speaker enjoys imagining the situation even as he criticises it, and evinces a particular delight in the idea of having his own remains adored by “all women”?
At this point in the poem, when the poet’s wit has probed ideas of womanhood (as saints and sinners), loyalty in life and death, and the commanding forces of authority and idolatry, mention is made of the power to rise above all of these norms: “miracles”. The idea of the miraculous is introduced as part of the continuing exploration of the poem’s title conceit: “miracles are sought” once the bracelet and bones have been discovered and taken to those in authority, since the working of miracles was regarded as confirmation of a genuine relic. As Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica, God “fittingly honours relics by working miracles in their presence” (Aquinas, 1945, III. 9.25.6). A miracle is seen as the work of God since it enacts something beyond both human power and the wider laws of nature. Sir Thomas Browne, in Religio Medici 1:27, defined miracles as “the extraordinary effect of the hand of God”, producing “effects" not only against, or above Nature”, but also “before Nature” since the original creation was itself a miracle (Browne, 1977, 95). Ironically, one of the effects of the early modern “new philosophy” referred to by Donne in “The First Anniversary” (276) was to call into doubt the possibility of any new miracles; as Lafew observes in All’s Well that Ends Well 2.3.1, “They say miracles are past” (Shakespeare, 1974, 516). But it was still common to use the term with metaphorical intent, with reference, for example, to people; Philip Sidney was called the “miracle of our age” (Carew in Camden, 1614, 44). At the end of this stanza of “The Relic”, Donne typifies the transition from literal to figurative uses of the word by employing it twice (ll. 20, 22), once doctrinally and once metaphorically. While the (misguidedly) religious will look for actual miraculous signs in connection with the supposed relics, the speaker will offer his own metaphoric interpretation in asserting “What miracles we harmless lovers wrought”.
The stanza ends, poised between satire and seriousness, with a particularly self-conscious gesture towards its own status as a “paper” whose function is to teach the age of “mis-devotion” a new sense of the miraculous. Within the dramatic scene established by the first two stanzas, there is a role for a document as well as a bracelet and bone; the poem is the third piece of evidence, the third “relic” of the “loving couple”. As in “The Canonization”, secular lovers are made into saints on account of their mutual devotion, and the poem itself becomes a kind of sacred text witnessing to their love: “by these hymns, all shall approve/Us canonized for love” (48). In an almost post-modern gesture, Donne enjoys allowing his own poem – “paper”, “hymn” – to justify, from within, its own existence and its own importance. But to what extent is this gesture also self-mocking, if the very idea of evidence (whether material relics or textual proof) is being questioned in the poem? Donne’s linguistic manoeuvres are such that epistemological security is forcibly abandoned. Is it possible, too, that the metaphysical vocabulary which he employs to challenge accepted meanings, such as the definition of a miracle, is thereby hollowed out and emptied of significance? Despite – or perhaps because of-its witty playfulness, this re-attribution of the accepted language of religion can be disconcerting. As David Norbrook has suggested, the re-use of a metaphysical discourse as an unrivalled source of metaphors and thought systems may not represent an honouring of the tradition but an undermining of “the claims of such discourses to transcendent status” (Norbrook, 1990, 15). What is a miracle, then, if its era has passed and its very transcendence is questioned?
4. “These miracles we did”
First, we loved well and faithfully,
Yet knew not what we loved, nor why,
Difference of sex no more we knew , 25
Than our guardian angels do ;
Coming and going, we Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals ;
Our hands ne’er touched the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free : 30
These miracles we did; but now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was. (76)
This final stanza purports to be an answer to the question raised by the lines immediately preceding it: what kind of miracles is the speaker talking about and claiming for himself and his beloved? He proceeds with apparent objectivity and logical clarity, beginning with “First”; this, however, immediately introduces what might seem like a structural difficulty in the stanza, since there is no explicit subsequent “Second”. By line 31 he sums up “These miracles we did”, so there must be more than one. The first miracle is undoubtedly the couple’s faithfulness to one another which, in its trusting, almost unknowing quality, is like that of the lovers in “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning” who are so “refined” by the experience that “our selves know not what it is” (84). Remembering Donne’s many comments on women’s (in) constancy elsewhere in his Songs and Sonnets, we may detect an air of astonishment at the fact that the couple managed to remain loving “well and faithfully” until, the poem’s context implies, they were parted by death.
The second miracle appears to be the fact that their love was above and beyond and “Difference of sex”. For, despite the passionate and erotic elements in the poem thus far (such as the grave as a bed, the sensuality of the bracelet, and the mistress being identified with the sexually experienced Mary Magdalen), their love is portrayed as Platonic, a meeting of angels rather than earthly partners. The “bright hair” of the first stanza perhaps has an angelic brightness to it after all, though it would have to be a non-physical aura since the accepted theology was that angels possess no bodies (and so, no hair). Because of their disembodied status, angels “neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30) and, as St. Thomas Aquinas confirmed in De Substantiis Separatis (Aquinas, 1927, 70-144), are without gender. Donne’s own lyric “Air and Angels” suggests that angels are pure and bodiless, wearing “face and wings/Of air” though even the airy element is not as “pure” as they are (42). According to the same poem, an angel can “affect” humans “in a voice” or “a shapeless flame”, hinting at the ethereal nature though actual presence of this “lovely glorious nothing” (42). As in many of his poems, in “Air and Angels” Donne allows the categories of woman and angel to overlap, thereby, of course, seriously challenging the notion that they are above sexual difference. In Elegy 19, “To his Mistress Going to Bed”, one of Donne’s most sexually explicit poems, the speaker’s mistress is said to be an “angel” who brings “A heaven like Mahomet’s paradise” (125). It is difficult to reconcile this gendered and sexually charged “angel” with the straightforward claim of angelic purity between the lovers in “The Relic”. Indeed, Milton went so far as to assert in Paradise Lost that angels could “either sex assume, or both”, while Raphael blushingly explains later in the epic that angelic spirits “embrace” in “union of pure with pure/Desiring” (Milton, 1968, 1:424, 8:626-8). Donne himself noted in the seventh “Expostulation” of his Devotions that angels maintain “the trade between Heaven and Earth” (Donne, 1975, 38), and argued from the pulpit that angels come into contact with middle ground, as “from extream to extream, from east to west, the Angels themselves cannot come, but by passing the middle way between” (Donne, 1962, 7:409). Is there, then, a “middle way” in “The Relic” between the “extreams” of sexual and Platonic love?
The admission of “perchance” in line 28 perhaps offers a hint of compromise in the portrayal of this relationship, as it proceeds to the implied third type of miracle “wrought” by the lovers. There was, it suggests, some physical contact between the lovers, who kissed upon meeting and parting, occasions of importance to Donne, as his several Valediction poems imply. These moments when love is reasserted or tested are also the points at which the Bible appears to authorise kissing, as, for example, when the prodigal son returns home to his father (Luke 15:20). The lovers’ brief encounters are described as “meals”, a fascinating choice of vocabulary, hinting that the taste of one another at these intermittent moments was a sufficient source of nourishment and refreshment for their love. There is an echo here of the language of divine grace, as in the biblical invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). The metaphor of a feast of love, even with a kind of starvation diet between meals, returns us to an image of physical pleasure which might seem to challenge the idea of a miraculously pure love put forward by the speaker a mere two lines earlier. The “meals” recall the heavenly banquet, the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), with its combination of selfless love (“agape”) and recognisably sensual celebration.
The fourth and final “miracle” of the lovers appears to be that they remained free from any sexual encounter beyond kissing. As lines 29-30 assert, the lovers did not break the rules by which society controls natural desires. Donne echoes Ovid’s Metamorphoses here, in his reference to the law which restrains “the things that nature setteth free” (Ovid, 1965, 10:329). Both Donne and his classical predecessor seem to regret the way in which the law works against nature; Donne’s speaker suggests that nature is “injured” by the law, and Golding’s translation of Ovid refers (10:331) to the laws as “spiteful”. Donne’s metaphor for the legal restrictions on the lovers is also profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand, the “seals” they did not touch are the wax endorsements of official documents which they did not break open. These could include the texts of those laws which are seen to damage nature, but could also refer to the covenant of redemption, as in Divine Meditation 7, when Christ is said to have “sealed my pardon, with thy blood” (312). The “seals” thus already point to both negative and positive authorities in their first, literal meaning. On the other hand, however, a “seal” is also a term used colloquially by Donne to refer to the sexual organs, as we were reminded by Claudine Raynaud in her interpretation of Elegy 19 earlier in this collection. The idea of lovers who do not touch one another, whether under the restraint of earthly or heavenly law, also takes us back to the identification (or perhaps mis-identification) of the speaker’s mistress with Mary Magdalen in stanza two. Christ’s words to Mary when she encounters him immediately after his resurrection, as depicted in Titian’s intensely sensual early sixteenth-century painting (“Noli me Tangere”), are “Touch me not” (John 20:17).
So far we have seen, in the first eight lines of the final stanza, four possible “miracles”, which are said to have been achieved by the lovers: faithfulness, sexlessness, transitory kisses and an absence of natural sexual intimacy. However, since a miracle is defined as that which goes against and above the rules of reason and nature, we may well ask wherein the lovers’ miracles lay. Did they achieve the miraculous by going against the speaker’s assumption that women are unfaithful (remembering his jibe against womankind being “to more than one a bed”), or by loving as angels do? Although the dominant interpretation of these “miracles” is an innocent reading, they have both have been shown to have possible cynical undertones. As the stanza progresses, the presence of physical love increasingly asserts itself, in kissing, in the challenging reference to legal and sexual “seals”, and in the natural freedom of desires. Which laws, then, did these miracles defy? Were the lovers able to override the laws of society which restrain sexual encounters, or was it miraculous that they went against the laws of nature by controlling their natural desires? The poem wittily offers the foundation for both interpretations, since the idea of “misdevotion”, or mis-reading the signs, has already been introduced in the previous stanza. From line 12 onwards, the whole poems turns on “If”, and several scenarios develop side by side. If the “mis-devotion” of the adoring multitudes leads them to take the lovers to be Christ and his devoted follower, then to praise their miraculous, metaphysical love as the ideal would be the consequence of a blasphemous error. If, on the other hand, the lovers were taken to be a prostitute and her partner, the miracle would indeed be that they kept their love pure, going against the laws of society and nature.
At the very point when we are puzzling out the layers of wit and logic in Donne’s sophisticated exploration of love’s complexities, the poem’s argument takes one final turn: the crowning miracle is not what the lovers did (or did not do), but the woman herself. Indeed, perhaps the real function of the opening word of the stanza, “First”, is to create a contrast between all the mutual miracles of the lovers on the one hand, and on the other, “now”, the miracle which was the beloved herself. As in a number of Donne’s divine poems, the persona turns away from self-focus at the very last moment; we could compare “Good Friday, 1613”, for example, when the speaker relents in the last half-line and agrees to “turn my face” to Christ (331). The final change of direction in “The Relic” is indicated by yet another shift in the pronouns and perspectives used in the lyric. The speaker no longer addresses his beloved (“thou”) or includes her in his statements (“we”, “us”, “our”) but puts her into the third person, as someone unutterably different: “what a miracle she was”. In what sense, now, is the woman a miracle? In his poem “To the Countess of Huntingdon”, Donne argues that an innocent woman is a rare “wonder” but one who is actively good is “a miracle, which reason’ scapes, and sense; / For, art and nature this in them withstood” (236). Once again the definition of a miracle is that which goes against the laws of “art and nature”, that which is unexpected and unnatural. It is as well to recall this before too quickly accepting that the speaker at the end of “The Relic” is expressing admiration for his mistress. If he is, it is only at the expense of all other women who are, by implication, flawed and inconstant by nature. Is this, in addition to the sense of loss which prevails in the final lines, the reason for the exclamation “alas”?
The accompanying idea is that the unnamed “she” is so wonderful as to be beyond “measure”, a term which means, literally, measurement or estimation but can also refer to the metrically patterned lines of poetry. It appears to be impossible to contain her in the lyric, to depict her within what Donne called, in his sonnet to Thomas Woodward, the “lame measure” of his “harsh verse” (209). Indeed, the speaker goes so far as to say that she is beyond language of any kind. This implies, naturally, that the woman’s perfection is inexpressible. But even this conclusion brings us back to the issues of truth, identity and blasphemy which were at stake in the second stanza. Elsewhere in Donne’s writings, in his poem in praise of the Sidneys’translation of the Psalms, it is God who, being “cornerless and infinite”, cannot be forced into the “strait corners of poor wit” (332). Is the woman hereby likened to God, and is this not another kind of “mis-devotion”? However, the cases are not quite parallel. The attempt to find words for God and the woman highlights the inadequacy of human language with which they must both be “apparelled” (Donne, 1962, 4:142), but, unlike the woman, God is himself the perfect divine language, the Word. “God came to us in verbo, In the word; for Christ is, The word that was made flesh” (Donne, 1962, 8:338). Despite the fact that she is not language itself but must be incorporated in it, there is still a hint of transcendence about the woman – a potentially divine characteristic putting her beyond the limits of human language. The speaker is, of course, indulging in wittily ironic flattery here. By using words to say how inadequate words are, he manages to suggest her superlative qualities even while saying, in a typically extreme manner, that he cannot do so. Once more, we confront a miracle as something which goes against or beyond natural and human laws – here, the norms of poetry and discourse.
If his beloved surpasses “all language”, there is an interesting secular admission here, too – a sort of unmanning in the failure of wit to supply adequate expression. Donne himself had, by his own admission in a letter to Henry Wotton, “an hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning and languages” (Walton, 1670, 30), but the value of this “desire”, and the “masculine persuasive force” of the poet’s own words (Donne, 1971, 118), are brought into question if he confesses that language is insufficient. In his elegy on Donne, Thomas Carew wrote of the poet’s “masculine expression” and “imperious wit”, as a result of which “stubborne language bends” (Donne, 1985, 497) to suit his will; but here the possibilities of language are not pliable enough. Even the “mystic language of the eye [n] or hand” mentioned in Elegy 7 (102) is denied to the speaker here, perhaps because, as Donne puts it in “The Ecstasy”, the body is normally the “book” in which “love’s mysteries” can be read (55); but with this angelic woman there is no body, and thus no text. However, if such a miraculous woman is beyond language in the same way that other miracles are beyond the laws of reason and nature, then it is perhaps logical to assume that perfection in love is not normally possible for human beings. We are therefore left to wonder whether these final lines on the inadequacy of language are an ironic undermining of the poem’s whole argument, or a triumphant transcendence of it.
We would, though, be wrong to conclude that the speaker is here simply and finally admitting that, as Donne puts it in his “Elegy upon the Death of Mistress Boulstred”, language is “too narrow, and too weak” (251) to encompass the wonders of his mistress. There are other reasons for silence (with which it is, after all, fitting to end a poem), such as the profound wish to avoid words and, by doing so, to keep something pure and secret. As the persona in “A Valediction forbidding Mourning” grandly declares, “‘Twere profanation of our joys/To tell the laity our love” (84). If this, rather than the failure of language, is the motivation for the speaker’s abandonment of any attempt to express the nature of his lover, then she is not only a miracle (a being or event which challenges natural principles) but also potentially a mystery (that is, something divine and beyond the comprehension of human reason). The links with Donne’s lyric “The Canonization” are very enlightening: there the lovers “die and rise the same, and prove/Mysterious by this love” (47). Those who read “The Relic” or “The Canonization” are invited to respond to the evidence of “this paper” or hear “these hymns”, but even that is not enough to explain the mystery of the love celebrated in the two poems. Those who really wish to fathom the miracle or comprehend the mystery of such love must, as the end of “The Canonization” advises, “beg from above/A pattern of your love” (48).
5. Conclusions: “something else”
Reading any text is a journey, and to read a poem by Donne can be to follow a winding and difficult path, through puzzlement, fascination, frustration and delight in almost equal measure. We build up meanings through relating text to intertext and context; we move between discrete words and the accumulated whole; we follow the flux and ccunter-tensions of the argument. This voyage of discovery through Donne’s mind, world, soul and wit can, ultimately, be deeply satisfying for the reader. As the central character of Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music comments during a casual conversation about this “unsettled” poet (from whose prose the novel’s title is derived), “I like his language, I mull over his ideas,” adding, to the surprise of the friend listening to these comments, “I find him relaxing late at night” (Seth, 1999, 441, 242).
“The Relic” may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing late-night read, but it certainly raises a number of questions to “mull over”. What is “the relic” in the end? During our reading of the poem we discovered material for a reliquary in the “bracelet” and the “bone” (l. 9), the lovers’ remains (l. 16) and the “paper” attesting to the miracle of their love (l. 21). Which of these is worthy of veneration, which generates genuine miracles, and which may come to be adored through “mis-devotion”? There are several conflicting answers, too, to the question of the kind of love upheld and praised in the poem; it could be a miraculously non-physical devotion, but it could also be a free love supremely above and beyond the normal social restrictions. Is the poem, therefore, a celebration of Platonic love, as is largely assumed among the critics, or an anti-Platonic satire, as claimed by, among others, Marvin Morillo (Morillo, 1974, 47)? Does the speaker maintain his ironic critical distance from the imagined future he sketches, or is he a victim of the feelings of adulation which he satirises? What is the “miracle” – that the lovers were kept together in the grave and respected as a loving couple, that they were adored, that they resisted the temptations of fleshly love, that theirs was a full experience of love, or simply what she herself was? Or are we, then and now, in an age beyond miracles?
“The Relic” tempts us on to dangerous ground, inviting us to enter its imagined scenes, enjoy its wit, and then accept the breath-taking twist of its ending. But there is perhaps a kind of idolatry in this poem, not necessarily in its religious implications but, ironically, in its praise of a woman as a miracle beyond words. For there is the possibility of “misdevotion” when any relic-bracelet, bones, or a memory of love-is venerated. In “The Funeral”, a lyric closely related to “The Relic” on account of its similar “wreath of hair”, there is said to be a danger of “idolatry, / If into others’ hands these relics came” (60). Is “The Relic”, too, a case of idolatry, when the speaker, and reader, adore what Donne elsewhere calls a “profane mistress” (314)? If we prefer to idolise the poem itself as a relic of the poet’s brilliant wit, is there not also a sort of literary idolatry taking place?
Although reading is a process of enquiry, it is not my intention to sum up the poem in nothing but unanswered questions. “The Relic” is a fine illustration of the paradoxes of Donne’s art – not that he uses many specific paradoxes as rhetorical structures in the poem, but it sets up apparent oppositions which are fundamental to its tensions and its success. The speaker mistrusts and attacks women even while affectionately, even wonderingly, upholding one as a miracle; the poem mocks false religion and idolatry yet delights in, and profits from, their modes of thought; it speaks with passion and evident sexual reference yet seems to depict an idealised chaste Platonic love. The setting is (literally) deathly, but the mood is lively and energetic, and the concern with the spiritual is mediated through material experience. It is a lyric in praise of a woman but is at least as dynamically concerned with the speaker’s own posthumous fame as with the detail of the beloved. Above all, it points out the limitations of language and yet pushes in fine and witty language against those very boundaries of the inexpressible.
Is the poem itself also at the boundary of the uninterpretable? I think not, particularly because the challenge of making sense of it is quite clearly and deliberately set by Donne himself in that tantalising line, “A something else thereby”. This is the moment in the poem when the writer most obviously gives a clue and invites the reader to find a solution by means of the process of reading and interpretation. And what is this “something else”? As the opaque phrase deliberately announces, there are several possible identifications hidden behind it, including at least one which is innocent (but naive) and one which is knowing (but limiting). This playful sparring between author and audience is a conscious part of reading a poem by Donne, and it occurs at many other, less obvious points in the lyric, such as in the positive or cynical interpretations of the idea of the woman as a “miracle”. The poem’s counterpoint lies in these exciting possibilities, set up by the wit which ultimately also supplies the means of harmonising the play of meanings into one “equal” and, as Hamlet would put it, “most eloquent” music (Shakespeare, 1974, 1165, 3.2.359).
Perhaps, finally, we have not outlived miracles. The poem is the “relic” we still possess, which in its exploration of love achieves for the reader what relics are supposed to do: it works a kind of miracle of wit.
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